by Danny Richter
VATICAN CITY – Today was by far my favorite day of the conference. Not because of the talks (yesterday’s take the cake for best of the conference), but rather because of what happened between the talks. We were most of the way through the first talk of the day when it was announced that Pope Francis had agreed to receive us for a photograph in 10 minutes. If we had been having trouble finishing talks on time throughout the conference, there were no problems ending this talk on time.
So, off we went to meet the Pope. On the way, Matt and I happened to fall into conversation with Professor Paulus Zulu from South Africa. Head of his own research institution in South Africa, at 72 Professor Zulu nonetheless plays tennis with 40-year olds and still wins about half of his games. He asked if we had been inside St. Peter’s Basilica yet, and when we answered no, he offered to take us at lunch. “Lunch” turned out to be immediately after we saw the Pope (I’ll get back to that in a minute), so off we went for a personal tour with a fit 72 year old who has been coming to the Vatican as a member of the Academy of Social Sciences since it was founded in 1994, who met Pope John Paul II 10 times, and Pope Benedict two times. We knew this was going to be good!
It was. All the conference attendees had name badges which we came to see as being not unlike magic. They got us waved into the Vatican every day for the proceedings, and on this occasion, they got us straight into St. Peter’s and around barriers and to the front of lines with nods and salutes. Magic! The Basilica is both enormous and beautiful. Designed by Michelangelo, it is capped by the largest dome in the world, and incredibly beautiful inside. The whole time I felt something in the pit of my stomach, a mild sensation I’d compare to what you get when standing on the edge of a cliff (though not in any way bad). Highlights included Michelangelo’s Pieta, a bronze St. Peter’s foot rubbed almost all the way through by visitors through the centuries, and walking out through the door with the skeletal Death in a sculpture by Bernini marking the tomb of Pope Alexander VII. Our tour was not nearly long enough to do the place justice, but then again, we were kind of playing hookey.
So back we wandered to Casina Pio IV, but first, I’ll return to our encounter with Pope Francis. Though we had been told we would be meeting the Holy Father in 10 minutes, we ended up waiting outside for him for about 30 minutes, during which time I was yet again struck by how interesting it is to watch all these incredibly accomplished people at rest. What do they do when they have nothing to do for a half hour? Who do they chat with? What do they chat about? Do they kick stones on the ground? How did I get invited again?
We were waiting outside the Pope’s residence, from which I expected him to emerge. But, he came from the other side, and I was alerted to this only by everyone’s sudden quiet. I would learn later that Dr. Ramanathan was given only two sentences to express what this conference was about, and that he had originally been told that those two sentences had to be in Spanish. I don’t think he speaks Spanish. He ended up saying it in English, and conveyed 3 sentences total. Dr. Dasgupta (who I learned today has been knighted by the Queen of England) got 1 sentence. So, here we are, 86 of us, spending 5 days on this conference, and we get 4 sentences with the Pope and a photo op. I get the sense that Vatican politics is very complex.
This actually leads to an interesting aside, in that no one, not even Monseigneur Sorondo, the Chancellor of both Academies, knows exactly how this is going to get to the Pope’s desk. Throughout the conference it had been very clear that what exactly would come out of this conference and what it would accomplish was very unclear. The depth of this lack of clarity, and exactly how tenuous it was that our work would make it to the Pope, however, was not made fully apparent to me until I learned about those 4 sentences. Very strange, yet remarkable that all these VIPs think it worth their time to be here for that chance.
We got our photos with the Pope. The photo op stuck me as very haphazard. There was minimal effort to make sure everyone got into the frame, you had non-religious scientists smiling and madly snapping pictures of the Pontiff, and the devout among us making extra efforts to get close to Pope Francis and get to talk to him. It was a microcosm of what he must go through every day, and I couldn’t help but be impressed at the way he handled the attention, and was struck by just how exhausting this must be. Day in and day out for the rest of your life, you will have people falling over themselves to meet you, and the weight of expectation on your shoulders must be crushing. You’re not just a head of state, you’re also a head of faith, so everything you say is analyzed and scrutinized with respect to both this world and the next. No wonder we had time only for 4 sentences! The volume, density (ever done contextual analysis on 1700 year old texts and how they apply to the digital age?), and intensity of concerns (I’m imagining single mothers of terminally ill children in developing countries placing all their hopes on your blessing) that pass by his attention on a daily basis would be crushing. Pity the Pope.
Getting back to the conference, Professor Zulu, Emily, Matt and I wandered back to Casina Pio IV after playing hookey, and watched Dr. Battro’s presentation from the coffee room where there were still some snacks and coffee for us to enjoy while we watched on the TVs. We waited to enter until the questions began out of respect. This was the first presentation after the break, so really, our attempt at hookey was not that impressively delinquent. We also happened upon Professors Oreskes and Villacorta as we entered, who had also been wandering and exchanging Catholic and Jewish jokes. Love it.
The next presentation was by Dr. Archer, president of the Academy of Social Sciences, and it was a pretty hard-hitting talk. She was discussing the problem of human trafficking; modern slavery. Some 30 million people are being trafficked around the world, but of course the actual numbers are somewhat murky for such an industry. It was clear that many of these are trafficked in the sex trade, and the gangs that largely mediate this trade are very sophisticated. Though within a country there may be fierce competition among gangs, they make efficient use of digital communication and lessons learned trafficking guns and drugs to work very seamlessly across borders. Governments’ response has been lackluster. First, who in politics wants to talk about modern slavery within the country they are supposed to love? It was also suggested that not enough attention is paid to this because the forced labor is useful for governments. I found this a rather shocking claim, yet, as was pointed out, when only 27 people have been convicted of trafficking in the EU, I can see how such conclusions could be reached.
The presentation also discussed the plight of the victims, and how they often do not know what country they are in at any given time. When they are freed from such horrible situations, what is done to help them? Repatriating them is problematic, because you are putting them back into the situation from which they were originally taken, back to the same family who in many cases gave them up (or sold them) in the first place, and they know the people involved in the trafficking network; dangerous knowledge.
In the discussion, a comment was made about what the Pontifical Academies could be expected to do about this, and the response was perhaps the clearest direction given throughout the conference on what the outcome would be for this particular conference: We can put pressure through the “normal political channels” to address this. This would include legislation. We can go to both secular and religious groups, because both have been doing important work. The role of the academies is to be facilitators of a global social movement. If that strikes you as strange, it was pointed out that the Catholic Church is the the oldest social movement in the world. All the Academies are doing is responding to modern times.
After this, it was time for lunch. Here I’m afraid I will again have to digress to using the tourist voice. As I have already expressed, there was some disappointment on the first day that observers would not be able to join participants for lunch or dinner; a disappointment I think could have been nipped in the bud by simple communication up front. However, on this last day of the conference, because so many people had already had to leave the conference, Dr. Ramanathan encouraged Matt, Emily and I to come on down for lunch anyway. So, I sat at a table with him, Dr. Oreskes, Paul Crutzen, Yuan-Tseh Yee, Walter Munk, Mary Munk, Anil Kulkarni, his wife, as well as Matt and Emily. If you were counting, that was 2 Nobel laureates (one of whom coined the term “the Anthropocene”), the author of Merchants of Doubt, one of the organizers of this meeting, and the man who figured out how tides work, and as a result advised the US Military of the best timing for their invasion of Normandy on D-Day. It occurred to me during this lunch that short of tossing back a couple of cold ones with at least 3 heads of state, I was probably peaking in terms of hanging out with people who had changed the world. Yup, I peaked at 31.
More remarkable to me than just being there was how Matt, Emily, and I were treated as equals. Each of us had a chance to tell the table what we were up to, and everyone listened and asked interested questions. There was really no need for that, but it happened. What also happened was that as I was explaining CCL and what we do, I mentioned that our membership was generally older, guessing that the average age was about 55. Dr. Ramanathan then called me out (“55 is old?!”), since the average age of the academicians was 70-75. He told me that I would not be invited back as a result of this slight, unless I succeeded in getting a carbon tax passed in Congress. Not that I needed it, but how’s that for a little extra motivation?
Of the talks that remained, I found the talk by Dr. Oreskes the most interesting. She focused on how the role of scientists in shaping policy in the US has changed in the 20th century; generally becoming more technocratic and hesitant to apply their perspective and expertise to weighing in on policy positions. She broke down this “retreat into the technica” into 3 periods: 1. Crisis of nuclear weapons, 2. The select committee period, and 3. The assessment period. In the first period, you had scientists behaving as true citizens; speaking out about both the science and the morals of possessing the nuclear weapons those very same scientists helped to create. Period 2 was defined by committees hand-picked by the US President, such as PSAC and JASONs. These committees were mindful of respecting the political process, particularly the prerogatives of the President. However, they were not afraid to speak truth to power, or make policy recommendations. This led to a crisis, when Richard Garwin spoke out against Nixon, and Nixon dissolved the committee, thus ending this particular period. The third period is the period we are all familiar with today, the era of the IPCC, in which massive accumulations of scientists work towards consensus and are at pains not to make policy recommendations.
While Dr. Oreskes stated that there are good reasons for scientists to retreat from getting involved in policy, she also highlighted that something has been lost. Scientists do, after all, have a particularly well-informed view of how the world works dearly bought with years of hard work at the edge of human knowledge. This gives us a uniquely vivid perspective on the risks we face. On the topic of climate, we have failed to convey the problem to the public in a meaningful way.
How to fix this? She highlighted two ways. First, natural and social scientists should work together more closely, and equally (she expressed a view that natural scientists look down on social scientists a bit; hampering collaboration). Second, scientists need to work with religious leaders. Historically, the vast majority of scientists have held religious convictions, albeit often unorthodox ones. Many scientists through time have found evidence of God’s glory in nature.
Some other great insights from the day came not from talks, but from the discussion. I thought Scott Barrett had some particularly insightful comments. For example, in response to Dr. Oreskes’ talk he noted that if scientists are citizens, then they have a responsibility to speak out. After Dr. Martin Rees’ talk on existential threats to humanity (favorite quote from that talk: “The bells that toll for Mankind are attached to our own neck. And if they do not make a melodious sound, it can only be our fault”), he noted that he used to worry that we would implement geoengineering solutions before it was necessary. Now he worries that we will not be able or willing to implement them when it is absolutely necessary.
Dr. Oreskes had the last official talk of the day, but Andy Revkin from the New York Times gave a summary of the proceedings, and two separate final statements summarizing the conference were read. The uncertainty surrounding the outcome of this conference notwithstanding, the hope is that Pope Francis will choose to sign the ~2-page statement the participants settle on. They invited comments from everyone on the content of those statements.
We also got an insight into the process of making this conference happen. Apparently, Drs. Ramanathan and Dasgupta had been exchanging no less than 4 e-mails per day with each other and Chancellor Sorondo since October 2012. That is an amazing amount of effort to put into a conference with so uncertain an outcome! Dr. Ramanathan also gave his opinion that he would rate this meeting near the top in his experience, even of other meetings here at the Vatican. As to what made this meeting so unique, he highlighted that it was the fact that Pope Francis met a bunch of sustainability scientists and social scientists. Furthermore, it would not have happened if not for Chancellor Sorondo’s persistence in approaching the Pope about this conference, and this issue. Also highlighted were the secretariat for the Academies that runs on a shoestring budget, and yet managed to put together this conference. The interpreters also, deservedly, won a hearty round of applause for their efforts.